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Starting XI: Manchester United vs. Newcastle United

Hello, crisis, my old friend

Newcastle United v Crystal Palace - Premier League - St James’ Park Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

A reeling Manchester United host the surprisingly-decent Newcastle United on Boxing Day. Here’s everything that you need to know ahead of the match.

(1) Manchester United hit rock bottom at Vicarage Road on Sunday. Last-place Watford bossed the Reds from the start, kickstarting their survival push with an easy 2-0 win. United’s chances were few and far between — a mangled chip by Jesse Lingard and a wasted header from Harry Maguire the most notable. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer compared his side’s first-half effort to that of a testimonial. Results like this cause heads to roll.

(2) After months on the sidelines, Paul Pogba made his long-awaited return in the 64th minute on Sunday. And he looked pretty good. Pogba even delivered one of his pinpoint long balls that deserved a better finish from Mason Greenwood. Back in September, United brought him back too soon from his initial ankle injury, causing a more severe re-aggravation. Expect Ole to ease his star midfielder back into action over this busy festive period.

(3) The Watford loss leaves Manchester United with just two wins in their last eleven matches against sides twelfth or worse in the Premier League. These are the games that other top teams feast on. Maybe it’s a good thing that Newcastle sit higher than that in the table. In fact, they’re even on points with United. How depressing is that?

(4) With Manchester United likely to control possession again on Boxing Day, this makes for some grisly reading...

(5) Solskjaer didn’t exactly pull his punches after a very difficult loss at the weekend:

Yes, definitely, you want to get back to Old Trafford and win because that’s not good enough. We know we have a tough spell, loads of games coming up, but that’s what [the players] want. I’m sure they’ll... Well, we have to see a reaction.

(6) Newcastle’s 1-0 win over Crystal Palace on Saturday boosted the Tynesiders up to ninth in the Premier League. That’s a stunning reversal to the gloom and doom which engulfed the club after Rafa Benitez’s summer departure. Frankly, Steve Bruce deserves a ton of credit for brushing aside all the doubts and recrimination — much of it from his own fans — and steering the club up the table. These are not the relegation chancers that everyone expected.

(7) Incredibly, Newcastle are defying the odds despite getting almost nothing from their forwards. Andy Carroll and Dwight Gayle remain scoreless, while record signing Joelinton is very much a work-in-progress. On the plus side, the Toon backline has chipped in with nine goals — in addition to some gaudy defensive stats (at least compared to others outside the big six).

(8) The same can’t be said for Manchester United’s defense. Sunday was an utter disaster, starting with David De Gea’s howler that handed Watford the lead. Even Aaron Wan-Bissaka, so often a revelation at right back, proved human with a poorly-timed challenge on Ismaila Sarr that resulted in a penalty. The Reds have not kept a clean sheet in their last 13 Premier League matches.

(9) One of the bigger storylines of this Newcastle season was Miguel Almiron’s scoring drought. Notice the past tense. Almiron’s left-footed half-volley — courtesy of a Fabian Schar cross and Andy Carroll header — defeated Crystal Palace at the weekend and lifted a world of pressure off the 25-year-old’s back. Brucey was ecstatic (and nearly injured himself in celebration):

I did a Jose Mourinho, but my hip nearly came out. I’m delighted for Miggy. He’s a great player, a great pro, and a great lad. You want people like that to succeed.

(10) Bruce sometimes get labeled a tactical dinosaur, but it was his clever tweak that unlocked Almiron’s goal-scoring performance. He shifted the Paraguayan into the hole behind the front line, as part of an overall move to 3-4-1-2.

Coming from a bit deeper helped. We have seen him play there — he played as number 10 for Atlanta. He’s no stranger to that role. It was his best performance for a while.

(11) In October, Manchester United turned in one of their worst performances of the season at St. James’ Park. A Matty Longstaff belter was all Newcastle needed for a shock 1-0 victory, one that sent the Reds slumping into the international break. Entering that match, Newcastle were in complete disarray — supporters furiously protesting Mike Ashley’s ownership, players openly questioning Bruce, and pundits all but guaranteeing relegation. Yet, against all odds, the Reds looked second-best for most of the game and suffered a humiliating defeat.